Thursday 8 March 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Williams - Arresting the slide?

October the 24th 2004 is a very long time ago. And for anyone associated with Williams it must seem especially so.

Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
That, if you hadn't worked it out, is the date on which Williams last won a Grand Prix. Upwards of seven years ago in other words. If you'd told anyone associated with F1 back then that the Grove team would endure such an expanse without winning a race (indeed, with hardly looking like winning one), and that come 2011 they'd be further away from competitiveness than ever, they probably would have thought you'd flipped your lid. Yet that's exactly what has happened.

For a long time the assumption among almost all observers was that Williams would bounce back inevitably. How could they not? This after all was an operation synonymous with dominance and engineering excellence, with seven drivers' titles and nine constructors' titles to their name, won in a seventeen year period.

But the doldrums have lingered maddeningly. There has been the odd upturn in there, the odd false dawn, but the overall trajectory has been definitely downward. Indeed, they've never won a championship since Adrian Newey stopped having input into their cars. The more time goes on, the more come to the opinion that Williams are another Tyrrell: a once formidable force never again to recapture their former eminence.

It's not over-egging things to say that last year was the worst season ever for Williams Grand Prix (certainly of their modern, 1978 onwards, form). They accumulated but five points, and had the 2009 points scoring system still been active they wouldn't have scored any.

The FW33 used in 2011 had many vices and not many virtues. Its tiny gearbox, a magnificent piece of engineering designed to promote greater airflow to the diffuser, turned many heads in testing and led to some reckoning that Williams had come up with the 'next big thing' that everyone would have to copy. As it transpired, the gearbox wasn't really their problem in itself (and indeed it features again in their 2012 machine), but it didn't do all that it was meant to, as the Cosworth engine's inlet trumpets were relatively wide and thus negated much of the theoretical airflow advantage of the small gearbox.

Beyond this the car was heavy, unreliable, not great on its tyres, and worst of all not very quick. In a recurring theme, Williams' exhaust blown diffuser was never as effective as those of the other midfield runners (I've heard it argued that the competitive pecking order of the 2011 midfield reflects essentially how effective each team's exhaust blown diffuser was). In their case, a lot of the cause was their Cosworth engine. Cosworth never got on top of off-throttle exhaust blowing, either in terms of software or ignition retardation. It's probably not coincidence that Williams' most convincing weekend of the season possibly was at Silverstone (wherein Maldonado qualified seventh), the one weekend where diffuser blowing was severely restricted.

But Williams cannot be accused of being inactive in the face of all this. Much has changed at the Grove squad as they enter 2012. Then technical director Sam Michael and head of aero Jon Tomlinson handed in their notices shortly into the 2011 season, and in came Mike Coughlan as technical director, Mark Gillan as chief operations engineer and Jason Somerville as head of aero.

And it wasn't simply a case changing the names on the office doors. There has been root and branch reform of how the team is doing things. Before, it seemed that Williams had not adapted to the demands of modern F1, with 20 races a season most of which are outside Europe, and severe testing restrictions. There was a lack of control at the factory (it's not for nothing that Coughlan's role will be factory-based largely) and the factory tail was wagging the race team dog, taking a scatter gun approach to producing new parts for the race team to use up its Friday running testing and also burden them operationally, without much coherence or broad understanding of what the car needed.

And the benefits of all this change looks like it's been felt all the way to the set of wheels itself. The FW34 for 2012 looks quick in testing, as well as is reliable (Williams clocked more official testing miles than any other team in their 2012 car). The car appears to generate a lot of downforce for the quick turns, and while some reckoned that at Jerez it wasn't so good in the slower stuff, by the second test, in Barcelona, it outwardly had improved a lot here as well. And the car will benefit from a Renault engine rather than a Cosworth, which among its other benefits has narrower inlet trumpets than the Cosworth which should finally allow all of the airflow benefit from the compact gearbox.

Some believe Williams have leapfrogged one or more of their midfield rivals, and Pastor Maldonado has even mentioned podiums (though that's probably asking too much for 2012, barring something very unusual happening).

It looks like Williams won't be hanging off the back of the midfield in 2012, at the very least. Slide arrested, and reversed, hopefully.

Credit: Morio / CC
Pastor Maldonado - Car #18
Much has been made of Williams' choice of drivers for 2012, especially as it involved the evergreen and popular Rubens Barrichello being discarded. Their driving pair for this year have been widely, and unfairly, derided as 'pay drivers'.

It's unfair on a couple of levels. While they both are bring money to the team (tens of millions of pounds between them if you believe the grapevine), Williams' problem in recent times has been the car, not the drivers, and the resource can be used to make the car better. Further, if the FW34 is a good car both of their drivers have sufficient talent, to go with their wealth, to be able to take advantage of it.

This applies to Pastor Maldonado. He made his debut with the Grove team last year and spent much of the time on a hiding to nothing it seemed, such was his 'pay driver' reputation (many were apparently determined not to acknowledge that he was also reigning GP2 champion).

He showed in 2011 however that he has a decent turn of pace, especially in qualifying where he made the top ten three times (compared to his team mate Barrichello's zero) and he outqualified Barrichello eight times, which compares favourably with Nico Hulkenberg in 2010 who only did this on six occasions. He also showed that he has a deserved reputation as a Monaco specialist - he ran near the front of the pack throughout the race there and would have finished sixth but for being removed from the race by Lewis Hamilton late on. And bear in mind that the FW33 was a difficult, uncompetitive machine, and the team were enduring a long dark night of the soul, a situation in which it's particularly difficult for a rookie, lacking as they do experience and the assurance of longevity to fall back on.

Still, there were also mistakes and stewards' wrath aplenty associated with Maldonado. And Spa qualifying remains the major black mark, aiming his car at Hamilton's in a crass stunt that he was fortunate not to be kicked out of the event for. But on race day we saw the best of Maldonado: driving well under pressure, passing when he had to, and making a two-stop strategy work, all of which got him his first point in F1. He never really managed a whole weekend where nothing went wrong last year (which wasn't always his fault); with some of these he could have got a few more points and, presumably with it, changed for the better how some observers view him.

Maldonado has a chance this year to prove that he's more than just a pay driver. And on the evidence of testing it looks like he plans to respond to this challenge positively - Pastor's looks neat, efficient and error-free.

Credit: ph-stop / CC
Bruno Senna - Car #19
Where would Bruno Senna be right now if he'd sealed the deal to join Honda (which became Brawn) for the 2009 season?

It just goes to show what the margins are in F1 between success and failure; or, more to the point, between getting and not getting your big break. With access to a 2009 Brawn it's fairly difficult to imagine how Senna could have not at least won an F1 race. But, instead, after Brawn decided to stick with experience by retaining Rubens Barrichello, Senna was sent on a nomadic way via the Le Mans Series, Hispania and a Renault reserve driver role. He then got his 'proper' F1 break at last when Nick Heidfeld's relationship with Renault imploded midway through last season, and Senna was chosen to drive the final eight races. Stepping in mid-season, without testing, is usually a graveyard shift, but Senna performed respectably, over the piece just about matching team mate Vitaly Petrov. Qualifying seventh in his first weekend back, at Spa, in changeable conditions, and starting ninth in Brazil, as well as his KERS-less race run in India, were the highlights.

It was nevertheless a bit of a surprise that he surfaced with a Williams race seat for 2012. Many reckoned it owed something to the nice briefcase of sponsors' cash that he's been able to accrue, but Williams were at pains to point out that they'd assessed Senna and gave him the job on driving merit (though they were pushing things to suggest money had nothing to do with it). In any case, Senna's done an excellent job in going out and raising this sponsors' cash, and has also been smart enough to see that doing so would help him get drives, so it's hard to begrudge him using it to his advantage. Perhaps those drivers who aren't doing much to develop a budget are selling themselves short.

On reflection, the signing of Senna also makes sense when considering the particular situation Williams are in. Senna is clearly very smart, literate and analytical, and Williams, facing as they do a long climb back (hopefully, for them) to competitiveness, could do with someone like that feeding back to them. Indeed, it's probably not for nothing that Williams’s public pronouncements on Senna's signing made strong reference to his brain power.

And Senna, judging by his drives at Renault as well as his time in lower formulae, has shown enough to be deserving of a proper, season-long, chance to prove his worth in F1.

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